Paper for Society of Biblical Literature March 29, 2014 at Denver University Mary A. Hanson
Diakonia in Luke 10:38-42: What Was Martha Doing?
Mary and Martha have drawn strong reactions in countless sermons and devotions over the years. Since the seventh century, this passage was the lectionary text for the feast of the Assumption of Mary. This is but one indication of the importance of Luke 10:38-42 because Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not a character in the text that was read on one of her feast days. Homilies from as early as Jerome, Origen, Cassian, and Augustine are still available to us. From the medieval period, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and Bernard of Clairvaux produced several sermons on the text. The Reformers reinforced the work ethic, but not at the expense of the spiritual.Today best-selling authors have popularized the traditional story of Mary and Martha.
Quoting G.B. Caird, “Few stories in the Gospels have been as consistently mishandled as this one.” The text, as usually applied, leaves the reader in a quandary. Each reading raises new questions. According to Jesus himself, Mary is the example to follow, while Martha appears to be reprimanded. Yet, most women have sympathy for Martha. Or, is Martha’s activity good, but she should do less of it? Why does Mary not say anything in her defense? Is a “silent” woman the preferred example to one that “complains?” Is one sister necessarily an example of “good” and one an example of “not so good?” Must the sisters be set against each other?
Why would the “service” that Martha performed on this occasion of Jesus’ visit be considered unsatisfactory. Jesus himself offered extravagant practical service in his everyday ministry. He provided multitudes with abundant food and gathered the leftovers, he changed water to fine wine, and provided a bounteous harvest of fish. Likewise, in the parable immediately preceding our passage, the Good Samaritan provides generous resources to care for the left-for-dead traveler. Why is Martha then criticized for doing what Jesus himself demonstrated as exemplary care for one’s neighbor? What was Martha really doing in Luke 10:38-42?
Interpretation is difficult for many reasons. The earliest manuscripts contain many textual variants which indicate scribal uncertainty. The location of the event is unspecified despite the traditional understanding that Mary and Martha were located in Bethany near Jerusalem. At this point in Luke’s travel narrative, starting at 9:51, Jesus was not likely to be near Jerusalem, but still north in Galilee. There is also no consensus concerning the context of these four verses, with no obvious connection to the text previous and following. This paper will concern yet another key issue in Luke 10:38-42, and that is the meaning of the Greek vocabulary. In particular, I will look carefully the family of diakon-words, which occur twice in verse 40, both as a verb and as a noun.
Reconsider the possible “service” that Martha is offering. In verse 40, Luke uses the noun diakoni,a in the accusative and the verb diakone,w as an infinitive. Altogether, Luke uses the verb eight times, which is more than any other NT author, and these are confined mostly to his Gospel. The semantic range of the meaning of the diakon-words in Luke includes “wait on, helping to support, do the work, serves, and preparations.” It can mean many different kinds of service on the behalf of another, including but not necessarily restricted to serving a meal. Of the thirty-four uses in the NT, fourteen times it is translated as “ministry” in the NIV.
III. Discussion of Diakoneō
I will first discuss the eight uses of the verb in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 4:39 he describes the activity of Peter’s mother-in-law where upon being healed by Jesus, she illustrated complete recovery by serving those in attendance. Luke 8:3 describes the activity of the women who “serve” Jesus, or Jesus and the disciples, while traveling, with their own resources. The third occurrence of the verb is in the verse under study: “Do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?”
Further, in chapter 12, Luke records a parable of Jesus using diakone,w when the master serves his servants who are properly prepared for his return home. In verse 17:8, Jesus tells of the master who demands to be served by his servant after a day of work. The last three occurrences are in the discourse of Jesus in chapter 22:27-28 on “Who is greatest?” Jesus says of himself, “I am among you as one that serves,” where the verb occurs as a participle.
The noun diakoni,a is used only once in all of Luke, and not in any other of the Gospels, and this one occurrence is in (10:40), which in the age-old understanding, concerns Martha’s service as a hostess. However, and this is the crux of my thesis, it is not as clear, as many commentators and popular authors claim, that the Mary and Martha event was a scene in a dining room and kitchen.
Briefly, I will review Luke’s use of diakon-words in his second work. In Acts 1:17, a successor to Judas is chosen to continue the ministry of the twelve, where diakoni,a refers to the work of the disciples. Acts 6:1-6 has a concentration of diakon-words, one use of the verb and two of the noun. I include this passage because it is a good illustration of the range of meaning of diakon- words in Luke’s writings. Seven Hellenists were appointed to devote themselves to diakoni,a “service at the table” so the apostles could be free to do diakoni,a “service of the word.” Seven of those chosen are never mentioned again. At least two in this group, Phillip and Stephen, practiced word-service and became preachers of the early Christian church. From Acts 6 alone, there certainly seems to be diverse meaning to diakoni,a.
Continuing in Acts, Luke also refers to the famine relief collection for Judea in 11:29 as diakoni,a. This same diakoni,a was carried out by Barnabas and Saul in 12:25, translated in the NIV “when they had finished their mission.” In Acts 19:22, Paul uses the participle to describe the work of Timothy and Erastus. Paul calls his overall ministry diakoni,a in 20:24 and 21:19. A similar passage is Rom 12:7. It would not be out of the question to entertain the possibility that Martha was engaged in this kind of work and therefore a deacon prototype.
IV Overview of Interpretations
With this background to the use of diakon-words I will review a sampling of commentators. As an illustration of traditional thinking, Tannehill maintains that diakoni,a in Luke 10:40 refers to hospitality, especially through providing a meal. He does not broaden to the possibility of an established ministry of preaching and leadership. A sample of well-known commentators who claim the conventional understanding of Mary and Martha in a household dining scene is long and impressive including Green, Bock, Nolland, Fitmyer, Marshall, LT Johnson, Hendriksen, Craddock, Tiede.
Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 noted that the text does not explicitly refer to a meal and does not place Martha in the kitchen, and that the more general expression diakoni,a, leaves open various possibilities. Also, Jesus’ climactic word does not mention diakoni,a but that Martha was troubled and anxious. Schüssler Fiorenza maintains that the word Luke used to describe Martha’s activity had already become a technical term for ecclesial leadership at the time he was writing when house-churches provided both preaching of the word and the Eucharistic meal celebration. She claims that Luke was writing anachronistically several decades after the event described. According to her hermeneutic of suspicion, Luke was now restricting women’s activities to traditional serving, and passive listening by repressing Martha’s serving as a deacon, and approving Mary’s listening.
Barbara Reid in 1996 acknowledges that Mary and Martha raise more questions than any other Lukan pericope that involves women. She maintains that diakoni,a can mean many different kinds of service on the behalf of another, including but not necessarily restricted to serving a meal. She realizes that most women identify with Martha but warns against the temptation to rescue Jesus or blunt the absolute approval of Mary and reprimand of Martha. I agree with her statement, “Our instincts are correct when they tell us that something is wrong with this picture; but to try to make it into something that is is not is equally problematic.”
J.N. Collins in 1990 defends the idea that diakoni,a did not describe domestic tasks, but service or ministry on behalf of Jesus and other disciples. He wrote an entire book on the meaning of diakoni,a working from classical Greek texts to expand the semantic field from lowly house service, to a “go-between or emissary,” such as an ambassador or courier. The Jewish understanding of “service” being mundane household work, has always been assumed, but Collins raised the possibility that NT writers may have also understood diakoni,a in the classic Greek sense of one who is a messenger, spokesperson or agent. This included, “mediation, intercession, agency, and mission in the name of a principle.” The noun was used for more formal activities and included religious contexts.
More recently in 2007, Anni Hentschel continues the work on diakoni,a and notes that the subject can be a man or woman, and indicates ministry in hospitality or in the broader sense, Phoebe being an example in Romans 16:1. She concludes that the understanding of diakoni,a in Luke 10:38-42 is determined by context. She does not find such a strong contrast as Collins, that is, one meaning does not necessarily preempt the other. Bringing food to the table, or serving in the community in a more official capacity, do not actually contrast so much.
Warren Carter indicates that Martha must be held as an example of the positive manner in which Jesus is to be received as described throughout chapter 10. He notes that the six uses of decomai (receive) in Luke prior to chapter 10 (2:28, 8:13, and four times in 9:48) connect Martha’s reception of Jesus to those who embrace his eschatological mission and openness to his message. In 9:52-53 and 10:10 the same word is used to show a negative reception. For Carter, Martha is an illustration of the model disciple. “In receiving Jesus, Martha is a child of peace (10:6) who has encountered God’s reign (Luke 10:9).” Therefore, it is unlikely that Martha is intended by Luke as a negative example. He makes a convincing argument that Martha is distracted by her responsibilities of leadership and house ministry.
In summary so far, Luke is probably intending both sisters as examples of exemplary discipleship. “Listening” (h;kouen) is always a favorable activity in Luke. Mary’s h;kouen “listening” is the opposite of the example of the person in 10:16 who rejects avqete,w. “To hear” is the antithesis of “to reject.” Likewise Martha “receives” Jesus in contrast to the Samaritans who did not receive him. To “hear” and to “act” describes the ideal response to the gospel in 8:21. Both women are the positive examples as opposed to the earlier negative examples.
Turid Karlsen Seim adds insights to the conclusions of the previous commentators. Seim notes that the first three uses of the verb in Luke have a woman or women as the subject. Furthermore, Seim adds that diakone,w in two of these three verses seem to indicate women supporting Jesus by use of their own resources. I would say that could also be true in the case of Peter’s mother-in-law, who may have been the owner of her house, serving Jesus from her own resources. She was not a common servant in her own house. The use of a daikon-word seems to indicate a higher level of service to the kingdom, as a householder taking care of her guests. Diakoni,a describes service by someone who is serving voluntarily from their own resources. Another verb, \etoima,zw is commonly used by Luke to describe common preparations, but which he did not use in this text.
Seim makes a unique observation: the early use of diakon-words by Jesus describes the behavior of women, but as his mission progresses, men are seen practicing diakoni,a, and finally Jesus himself. In other words, as women were habitually accustomed to serving, so should all people willingly serve self-sacrificially. In Luke’s history of Jesus’ ministry, diakoni,a is first found in the description of women’s activities, then used in parables as teaching material, and finally the ideal behavior for leaders. All people are to undertake leadership as “service.”
My goal in this presentation is to move this well-worn passage away from the traditional understanding that Luke is describing Martha as being over-worked in a dining situation. I intended to remove the sisters from opposition to each other, especially as an example of a contemplative life as preferable to the active life. I propose, that the source of Martha’s distress is not too much kitchen work, but distress over too much “service” of another unspecified sort and she is not getting the help from Mary that she thinks she needs.
Putting aside whatever reason there may be for Mary’s lack of availability to help Martha, there is enough evidence that Martha’s activity does not have to be restricted to a narrow definition of service such as preparing food. Martha was probably active in her first- century community in ministry to new believers. I am not ruling out the possibility that she served Jesus food on that day, and he may have stayed at her house, but that was not the source of her being pulled apart by much worry. She may very well have been a leader of an assembly place for early followers of Jesus, instead of, or in addition to, providing as hostess the comforts of a temporary home for Jesus.
There are very good grounds for imagining that Martha’s activity is closer in line with the work of what we would now call that of a deacon. If Martha’s work is described as a wide range of diverse activities, the story attains more depth and resonates with men and well as women. Further, to expand into my further research, I do not think that there is even evidence that Mary is in the house that day of Jesus’ visit. Therefore, Martha’s stress is due to worry about her sister being away—perhaps on the road with Jesus in ministry—and therefore unable to give Martha a hand with her “much service.”